Brain waves

In the car today, my youngest son (8) demanded an explanation of the word “depression”. Not sure where he’d picked it up – maybe he was flicking through a magazine at the hairdressers earlier? I tried to explain it to him as best I could and while I was at it, explained to him that his grandmother’s forgetfulness and repetitiveness through Alzheimer’s also has its root in the brain where so many things happen that we don’t yet fully understand. Of course, the connection between something tangible, our brains, and something intangible, our emotions, is very difficult for a child to grasp. But I think it’s important that we try!

Luckily, Alzheimer is now much better recognised in society than it was even a few years ago and people are beginning to grapple with the idea that, beside obesity and all the other consequences of a poor diet, Alzheimer is one of the biggest problems facing our health services today. My lovely Twitter friend Andrea Gillies is doing a great job at spreading this knowledge. She has two articles in the broadsheets today, one about caring for an Alzheimer patient at home (the Times) and one about the (lack of) care of Alzheimer patients when they are admitted into hospital wards (The Guardian). She knows what she’s talking about, having herself cared for her mother-in-law for three years. She’s written a fantastic but heart-wrenching book about that experience. I cried many times while reading it and I’m in complete awe of Andrea who stomached this without completely losing her mind.

I can only recommend it if you’re close to someone with Alzheimer or to someone who is caring for one. Also if you aren’t actually, because this is something we should all know more about!

At the opposite end of the spectre, so to speak, is happiness. As some readers will know, it’s a pet subject of mine. At the moment I’m reading a book called Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, who teaches positive psychology at Harvard.

The theory is that we – on average – are in control of 40% of our happiness, if you can put it that way. An average person, living above the poverty limit and in a non-oppressive society, has 40% power over his or her own happiness. Of course, if we’ve just lost a child or been diagnosed with cancer, the 40% shrink rapidly, but I’m sure you get my drift. So when we’re trotting along in our normal, relatively uneventful lives, we have considerable power to heighten our general feeling of happiness. Tal Ben-Shahar tries to give us the tools to do this. For instance, he has a lot of documentation for the fact that once we’ve reached the basic levels of Maslow hierarchy of needs, we all have the same chance of finding happiness. Money has very little to do with it.

I take great comfort in this (not just the money bit…) and try to internalise some of the principles that studies have shown work. For instance, he suggests that we do the “infinitely regressive why” exercise whenever we want something more than a bacon sarnie or a cup of tea. It’s done like this: Why do I want a bigger house? Because so-and-so. Why so-and-so? Because so-and-so. Until the answer is: Because it’ll make me happier. The more “becauses” there are between the original question and the happiness answer, the less meaningful it is for your overall happiness to acquire said object.

If you question that happiness is our ultimate goal in life, then read this quote from Hume:

“The great end of all human industry is the attainment of happiness. For this were arts invented, sciences cultivated, laws ordained, and societies modeled.”

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2 tanker om “Brain waves”

  1. I am interested in the notion of happiness being largely a matter of choice. It also amazes me that there seems to be a general expectation that we SHOULD be happy, that that is the normal state. Maybe we should be more realistic about our expectations!

  2. I don’t think we should be happy. But I think we should always strive to be! Also, happiness in this context is not that giddy, excited state we often think of as happiness. It’s more like a contented feeling, not always wishing you were somebody or somewhere else!

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